The first week of the Maccabiah Games marked several firsts.
The 19th international athletic competition, dubbed the Jewish Olympics, began with a gala, Olympic-style opening ceremony — the U.S. team marches, above and inset — at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem. It featured a record number of competitors, some 9,000.
Among the record 78 countries participating, 21 have sent teams, some as small as a single athlete, for the first time. Among them: Cuba, Mongolia and Ecuador.
The 2013 Maccabiah is the most expensive in history, with a budget of $56 million.
For the first time, many of the events, and many athletes’ housing, are located in Jerusalem, not in Tel Aviv.
The opening ceremony included dancing, fireworks and performances by violinist Miri Ben-Ari and American “X Factor” runner-up Carly Rose Sonenclar.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave the welcoming speech.
“After winning medals and winning achievement, go tour Israel. This is your country,” he said, alternating between English and Hebrew. “I’ll tell you the truth. I hope you and your families decide after this visit to come and live here.”
President Barack Obama, in a video greeting, cited the “unshakeable bond” between Israel and the United States.
Some 150 Jewish athletes who have Olympic experience are competing in this year’s Maccabiah. One Olympian, American gymnast Aly Raisman, lit the Maccabiah flame during the opening ceremony.
American swimmer Garret Weber-Gale, who earned a pair of gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Oympics, won his first Maccabiah gold medal on Sunday, in the 100-meter freestyle final.
And another first — Ben Feinman, a pitcher who recently graduated from West Broward High School in Florida, threw a no-hitter on the opening day of competition, the first one in Maccabiah baseball history; Team USA beat Canada 12-0 in that Junior baseball opener.
The U.S. and Israel teams led the medal count by far early this week, with totals, respectively, of 16 and 34.